‘Things were supposed to get better’: Former Lincoln Police officers say department, city leadership enabled wrongdoing for years

Andrew Wegley – Dec 3, 2022 – Lincoln Journal Star 

Former Lincoln police officers Luke Bonkiewicz (from left), Angela Sands, Laura Stokey, Sara Khalil and Erin Spilker pose for a photo in October. They are among seven current and former Lincoln Police officers who have come forward publicly, along with two former Lincoln Fire and Rescue employees, to raise alarm about what they say is systemic harassment, discrimination and retaliation that pervades the city’s public safety agencies and has for years been enabled by city leadership.NOAH RIFFE, Journal Star

Before she filed her first charge of discrimination against the city that employed her for nearly 10 years, Angela Sands says she knew how her tenure at the Lincoln Police Department would end. 

“I knew it was going to ruin my career when I did it,” she told the Journal Star.

That didn’t make her decision to send the complaint — alleging sex-based discrimination, incidents of harassment and a toxic workplace culture — any easier, she said.

Sands had battled the same issues since she first became a police officer in 2012, and even as the only female recruit in her academy class, she said, she was encouraged not to report the bullying and harassment she allegedly experienced from her male colleagues.

For more than eight years, she said, she obliged.

But by January 2021, her calculus had changed.

She had been awarded the department’s Medal of Honor. She was named the 2016 Nebraska Officer of the Year. And, perhaps most urgently, Sands had been promoted to sergeant, a supervisory role. She had a responsibility to sound the alarm on the harassment of women that she said had plagued the department for years.

Still, she had reservations. She considered an easier way out.

“I even called my dad and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get fired if I do this. Do I quit first?'” Sands recalled. “He just said, ‘You already know the answer.’ And it was — it still sucks.”

Sands sent the document to the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission that January as the city — already facing a lawsuit from former Officer Sarah Williams, who alleged a toxic culture toward women within the department and retaliation against those who reported it — began its search for a new police chief in the wake of Jeff Bliemeister’s resignation.

Then came the retaliation, Sands said.

Her emails asking for a critical incident debriefing — a mental health clinic of sorts — for Northeast Team officers following their response to a traumatic shooting scene were ignored by supervisors, both of whom were named in Sands’ initial discrimination complaint, she said.

There were phantom internal affairs investigations launched into both Sands and her entire staff at the Northeast Team station as rumors about the sergeant rippled through the department, she alleged in a second charge of discrimination filed in March 2022, a copy of which was reviewed by the Journal Star.

In one such instance, she said, she was investigated for her tone in an email to superiors.

And when Sands arrived at an interview in September 2021 for an internal affairs position she was vying for, she learned two officers on the hiring board were superiors she had lodged complaints against. She was not selected for the job.

“I was a good cop,” Sands said. “And I then started getting in trouble for the most insane things. … Right when that happened, I knew, ‘This is it. This is the downhill. I’m gonna be fired.'”

In December 2021, she was.

Sands is one of seven current and former Lincoln Police officers who have come forward publicly, along with two former Lincoln Fire and Rescue employees, to sound the alarm about what they say is systemic harassment, discrimination and retaliation that pervades the city’s public safety agencies and has for years been enabled by city leadership.

The nine current and former public safety employees are backed by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded in 2018 that provides legal support to individuals who say they have been subjected to sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

Four of the seven current and former police officers — Williams, Sara Khalil, Erin Spilker and Melissa Ripley — have filed lawsuits against the city, the latest coming in April, alleging sex-based discrimination and subsequent retaliation.

Three other former officers — Sands, Luke Bonkiewicz and Laura Stokey — have filed charges of discrimination with the state’s Equal Opportunity Commission. Bonkiewicz, the group’s only male, says he was retaliated against for reporting harassment and discrimination not only to superiors within the police department, but to city officials.

Ripley is the only whistleblower still employed by the department. Williams left the department in 2020 and later joined the Omaha Police Department. Spilker, a 20-year veteran of LPD, said the hostile work environment forced her to resign in March after she sued the city in January.

The remaining four officers — Sands, Stokey, Khalil and Bonkiewicz — were all fired after internal affairs investigations that followed reports of harassment or discrimination within the department.

“You have to realize that I was born and raised here,” said Bonkiewicz, one of five former public safety employees who spoke to the Journal Star for this story. “Elementary school. Junior high. High school. Went to college here. So this is my community. … I take tremendous pride in that.

“And so to understand that sexual misconduct was a prevalent issue in my city, in my police department, where I grew up and worked — was crushing,” he said. “And equally crushing was the fact that it had been going on for years and leadership had refused to address it.”

Teresa Ewins, who took over as Lincoln’s police chief in August 2021, has pointed to differing policy violations as grounds for each of the firings and has repeatedly denied that employees were retaliated against for speaking out.

‘Wanted LPD to keep me safe’

At times, the alleged harassment and discrimination presented safety risks for the female officers subjected to the behavior, according to the lawsuits and complaints.

In her lawsuit, Ripley said her safety was unnecessarily jeopardized while working as a narcotics investigator, when her sergeant failed to properly monitor her wire amid undercover drug buys.

And Stokey, who joined the department in 2018, said a fellow officer who she previously had romantic encounters with began relentlessly harassing her after Stokey rejected further advances, repeatedly refusing to provide back-up on Stokey’s calls for service, leaving her in potentially dangerous situations.

“I wanted LPD to keep me safe,” Stokey said. “They were my employer.”

Her supervisor — Sands — reported her concerns to LPD’s internal affairs unit, but her reports were never investigated, Stokey alleged in her latest charge of discrimination, filed in October.

Meanwhile, the department launched two separate internal investigations into Stokey — one involving an allegation of dishonesty lodged by the same officer who Stokey said had harassed her, the other surrounding the alleged mishandling of evidence in a case that Stokey had worked more than six months before.

Ewins fired Stokey in January — three months after she filed her first equal opportunity complaint against the department.

“I still don’t fully understand it,” Stokey said. “I can sit and I can think and think, and I will never fully understand why they treated me the way they did.”

The alleged wrongdoing within the department dates back two decades, according to the lawsuits and complaint filings, which identify dozens of current and former supervisors as discriminators or enablers, including the last two mayors and four full-time police chiefs, the department’s three assistant police chiefs, and 27 current and former captains or sergeants.

The documents also mention dozens of named and unnamed officers who were not working in supervisory roles but who allegedly harassed the complainants, as well as three members of the city attorney’s office who, the complaints say, failed to act on the reports.

In March, the city announced an independent assessment of the department, which Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird privately ordered in February 2021 after human resources officials looking into the complaints suggested it.

The national firm 21st Century Policing Solutions performed the assessment and in September reported that 16 female officers — 47% of those who responded to the firm’s survey — said that they had been discriminated against on the job.

The report issued at the conclusion of the assessment — which the city paid $110,000 for — does not indicate how many civilian employees reported similar experiences and does not directly address discrimination reported by males.

Though some were interviewed as a part of the assessment, none of the women who had left LPD in the past year — including Sands, Spilker, Khalil and Stokey  were provided a link to the survey, meaning their responses weren’t among the 16 women who reported discrimination, according to their attorney.

And though Ewins said employees “were not monitored” while taking the survey, Bonkiewicz, who was under suspension but not yet fired when the survey was opened, said command staff ordered him to take the survey in a conference room under the supervision of a captain.

Kathleen O’Toole, a partner at the independent firm who helped assess LPD, did not respond to a list of questions regarding the data included in the firm’s report, the rationale for what survey data was excluded and how many versions of the report were drafted before its final release.

In the immediate aftermath of the city’s Sept. 29 news conference releasing the results, Ewins asked officers to “put this in perspective” in a video message sent to department employees, a copy of which was obtained by the Journal Star through a public records request.

“Obviously, we pay attention to any complaint of discrimination or harassment,” Ewins said in the video. “But I will also tell you the question did not ask whether you’ve been in for 30 years and it happened 30 years ago.

“It didn’t ask if you were with the department or formerly had left the department, which people did participate that were formerly with the department. So I just want you to put it in perspective and not, umm, blow it up to a level that dissuades you from understanding the assessment.”

She went on to invite any employees who had questions about the assessment to email her or stop by her office.

In a November interview, Ewins said she did not point out the potentially broad timeline to discount the experiences of the 16 women who reported discrimination in the video message, but to “put it in perspective.” She added that “every one of those 16 is very important to me.”

“Does it concern me — 16 out of 50 women in the department? Yeah. Even one,” Ewins said in the interview, during which she did not directly comment on the pending lawsuits.

“But we don’t know the details,” she added, referring to the survey’s anonymity. “I do feel that we are in a place where we have a route for them to go if they feel like they’re being harassed, feel that they’re not safe. Absolutely, we’re gonna act immediately.”

Through an aide, Gaylor Baird declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the ongoing litigation and an update the city plans to provide at a news conference this week regarding LPD’s progress in the aftermath of the firm’s report.

The police chief pointed to changes the department implemented even before 21st Century Policing Solutions recommended 28 policy and procedure changes in its 58-page report. The changes that predate the report include reorganizing the department to provide increased supervision and the creation of a portal for officers to report discrimination concerns anonymously.

An additional change that predated the firm’s report was the designation of an officer within LPD’s internal affairs unit to investigate equal opportunity complaints such as the ones submitted to the state from whistleblowers.

Under the current process — which Ewins said was directed by the mayor’s office — a sworn sergeant evaluates discrimination complaints and reports made through the anonymous portal before reviewing them with an assistant police chief before Ewins views them herself.

The national firm that assessed the department recommended that “some or all EEO complaints might be referred for investigation outside” the department in an effort to “avoid even the appearance of conflict.”

The police chief said some complaints are dispatched to private, independent attorneys for investigation if department officials — namely her, an assistant chief or the internal affairs sergeant — decide a conflict of interest exists, with Ewins having the final say over whether an investigation is farmed out.

‘Who am I gonna talk to?’

For Spilker, a former public information officer, the department’s internal investigative process is why she for years chose not to report being harassed or discriminated against in an annual, internal end-of-year survey.

“Oh, who am I gonna talk to (if I submit a complaint)?” she said. “Another one of the people who has discriminated against or harassed me?

“That’s who’s calling me to ask if I want to talk about it. Literally a sergeant — male officer — in our department.”

Still, Ewins defended the process, which she says ensures that there are checks and balances for decisions made in the lead-up to internal affairs investigations.

“I know it just takes one case, that if we do it wrong, we’ll lose the faith of the department,” she said. “And that’s not what I’m gonna do.”

The police chief said LPD’s command staff drafted a document that will serve as a roadmap as the department begins to implement additional changes recommended by 21st Century Policing Solutions. She said the document will be posted to the city’s website this week.

Six of the firm’s recommendations addressed issues of harassment and discrimination. Five  called for tweaks or clarifications in the phrasing of several department policies on the filing of complaints. The sixth was the recommendation to outsource some equal opportunity investigations, which the department was doing before the assessment.

Ewins said the purpose of the report was not to assess the merit of the allegations that have embroiled the department over the past two years, nor the department’s response to those allegations, but to evaluate “who we are as a department.”

That interpretation of the assessment’s intent is at odds with how the mayor described it when she announced the evaluation in March, calling it a step in “thoroughly responding to concerns and maintaining a culture of excellence, free from discrimination and harassment.”

For some of the whistleblowers, the assessment didn’t do enough to address what they say is a subculture that has existed for years — one they were hopeful would be rooted out when Gaylor Baird tabbed Ewins to serve as the first female police chief in the department’s 150-year history.

“I think, we all thought: ‘Holy crap. We are gonna have a say, finally,'” Spilker said, recalling the city’s nationwide search to replace Bliemeister. “Things were supposed to get better.”

Ewins firmly rejected the implication that the department’s climate hasn’t improved in the past 15 months, pointing to the reporting policy changes, positive reviews from current employees and an increased focus on recruiting female officers. And she questioned the motivations of the complainants who suggested things haven’t changed.

“When people say that, I would ask what their intention is,” she said. “Because they’re not, obviously, looking at what we are doing. And I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made in just a year and three months.”

In early 2021, as the city kicked off its search for a police chief that eventually brought Ewins to Lincoln, at least five of the whistleblowers who hadn’t yet taken legal action against the city wrote to Gaylor Baird’s office to express concerns.

That March, Bonkiewicz sent an email to the mayor’s chief of staff to be shared with the city’s police chief search committee, describing a “dark undercurrent” within LPD that marginalizes female employees and discourages them from reporting sexual misconduct.

Bonkiewicz, who was hired in 2011 and terminated earlier this year after Ewins said he lied in an internal investigation, said he had never been so vocal or public in his advocacy before he addressed an email to the search committee.

“I sought the mayor’s office as possible haven,” he recalled.

In the following months, he said, he was blackballed by supervisors in a performance evaluation that he successfully disputed, demoted back to the street after his specialized position was abruptly eliminated and suspended for a research article he helped write, on his own time, about sexual violence within policing across the United States, he said.

“This is a timeline that clearly demonstrates that if you raise your hand and try to make the department and the mayor aware of these issues of sexual misconduct,” he said, “your dissenting opinion will not be tolerated.”

And three months before Bonkiewicz raised alarm in his email, Sands, Spilker, Ripley and Khalil penned a letter to Gaylor Baird requesting a meeting in the earliest stages of the city’s police chief search, according to two lawsuits and a charge of discrimination.

In the meeting, according to the documents, the women told Gaylor Baird that the department wasn’t a safe place for women, that they had been groomed not to report instances of discrimination, that the department’s culture was in dire need of reform.

“We thought that would be the end of it right there, that she’d go, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is terrible. I can’t believe this has happened. Like, how do we get it — how do we fix this?'” Spilker recalled.

“And from there, I think, there was obviously a target on our backs.”

In the file photo from March, Police Chief Teresa Ewins and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird address changes in the department amid allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment.JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star photo photo

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